Of Witches and Alibrijes The inspiration of Pedro Vargas Ortiz

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Pedro Vargas Ortiz describes his parents as “Mexicans to the bone.” They were the types who traveled from Mexico City to rural areas throughout the country and returned loaded with crafts: masks, vases, fantastic animals called “alebrijes,” red clay lamps, blue ceramic plates. Decorations in the home where he grew up dripped with so much “Mexicanness” that his friends would joke that it looked like Fonart, a network of stores specializing in folk arts.

“To this day (my parents) continue traveling and continue bringing Mexican art,” Vargas said from his studio in Mexico City. “I loved the color and these objects, these crafts that I would see in my parents’ home are part of my work: masks made of palm leaves, carvings from Michoacán, tall lamps from Guerrero — skinny, sinewy, like a woman’s shape, the red clay simulating their skin. All of this created my visual dictionary.”

Vargas’s colorful paintings are now on exhibit at the Salinas Center for Arts & Culture, a project of California State University Monterey Bay.

The show, Vargas’ first solo exhibit, is a production of famed avant-garde composer Philip Glass’ “Day and Nights Festival.”

From a very young age, Vargas Ortiz dreamed of becoming a painter. He began sketching and would spend long hours copying what his father, a furniture designer, would do. As he reached adolescence, one day he worked up the courage to show his drawings to a teacher in the arts center where he wanted to study. The teacher told him, “Art is not for you, use your time to do something else,” something that discouraged Vargas. Instead of looking for a career in the fine arts, he signed up to study graphic design at La Salle University in Mexico City.

After finishing his mandatory social service internship at Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico’s most prestigious performing arts center, Vargas was offered a full-time position. He worked there for several years designing the publicity for the concerts, operas and ballets in the center’s main hall. He met world-renowned artists, including Glass, and developed his skills as a graphic designer.

In spite of the discouraging words, the idea of dedicating his life to art for art’s sake never abandoned him, and he finally decided to “rescue his passion” a few years ago.

“One day, just like that, I decided ‘I’ve been told that I’m going to starve to death but my being could not wait any longer,’’’ he said. “A long time had passed since the days of the cultural center, many years of waiting.” He quit his job and with some savings began buying art materials. He didn’t have much and sometimes he recycled photographic paper for his paintings. He began showing his work to family and friends, and as he became better known, he began buying better materials

Glass, who travels to Mexico often for concerts, visited Vargas’s studio last year.

“He saw the paintings I had and he asked ‘Why is everything packed? Why haven’t you done anything with it” Where are the galleries, who’s promoting you?’” Vargas remembers. “I already had a gallery in Carmel represent me, but nothing of the importance of CSUMB.”

Glass could not be reached for comment.

Vargas’ show opened May 18 and will remain on display until July 9. On the walls of the center you can appreciate Vargas’ colorful images and their iconography — a bit religious, a bit sinister and most definitely surrealist.

He said his images began to emerge when he started painting without sketches and saw figures that resembled not just those he was surrounded with when he was little, but also the stories he used to hear his grandmother tell when he visited her in the countryside.

“In the ranch there were corn and sugar cane crops, and when the wind began to blow she would say it was witches who had the power to control nature, to speak with the dead. These rituals to protect you from the spirits, the onion under the coffin when somebody died, everything came together with the images I saw on an everyday basis” at home, he said.

Local muralist José Ortiz helped curate Vargas’ show. It came together with heavy doses of Mexican resourcefulness as the work arrived with no frames and there was no time or budget to purchase any. Ortiz said he admires Vargas’ autobiographical, personal style.

“It’s abstract, but there’s a lot in his mind. It’s like emptying all he has inside,” Ortiz said. “To me it’s like he’s searching for himself without fear. He’s representing all the fears we would have because of religion. I like his work. He has style and concept.”

When he came to Salinas for the grand opening of his show, Vargas talked to students from the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts. His presentation made him realize his work can overcome geographic and economic barriers between him and immigrants who have been forced to live in this country to find the financial opportunities México didn’t offer.

A student’s parent told him, “I’m really proud to see that you, as a Mexican living in Mexico, can have the opportunity to come here to show a bit of our culture, something I can’t see because I can’t go to my country,” Vargas recalled. “If I were painting trees or birds, the experience would have not been the same. Maybe these are not all the Mexican roots from all the peoples, but that’s what I learned from Mexico and now I show it in my paintings. And Mexican people who don’t live in Mexico anymore feel connected to my paintings, and that makes me feel good.”

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.